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Marnie

Tangled Trauma

Marnie

by Nico Muhly , libretto by Nicholas Wright

English National Opera, London Coliseum until 3rd December

World Premiere, directed by Michael Mayer

Review by Suzanne Frost

In recent years, there has been a sudden – and entirely overdue -quest for female-centred narratives, from movies to books to television, as if the entirety of pop culture had suddenly decided that women are actually interesting. As part of this culture shift, a trend occurred for the unsympathetic heroine: from Gillian Flynn’s Amy in Gone Girl to House of Cards’ Claire Underwood to Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, women who don’t have the word “nice“ as their defining quality are all the rage. Marnie is such a woman, a complex, tangled, traumatised, manipulative, revengeful and wounded character and it is extremely interesting to find out how such a character fares in the world of opera.

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Marnie is a world premiere, which is hugely exciting in its own right, opera being such a traditional museolised art form where newness is rarely added to the repertory. The American Nico Muhly is the youngest composer ever to have been commissioned by the ENO (in coproduction with the Metropolitan Opera) with the creation of a new work and being able to witness such an event is of course a huge privilege. Alas, Marnie is an odd one to see in an operatic setting, one that I struggle forming an opinion on. One that still makes me contemplate if I liked it or not, days later. Which is good in a way, I suppose.

Why on earth Marnie? No doubt, the thieving, identity changing, obsessive compulsive liar with a dark secret is a compelling, hugely layered and complex character – but one that isn’t easily portrayed with an aria or two. Opera, simplistically said, lives from grand emotions. Marnie keeps all her feelings locked up, under control, half of them are just acted out for the sake of manipulation, half of them she doesn’t even realise she has. Opera adores a great romantic sacrificial love story. Marnie is the definition of an anti-love story, all the people on stage despise each other to some extend and are, each in their own way, despicable. The settings – a cruise liner, a fox hunt, a bland office – all seem impossibly non-theatrical and none of this screams opera. Nevertheless, this is an experiment of pushing the art form somewhere unusual and it is interesting – if not entirely successful.

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Muhly and his librettist Nicholas Wright base their opera not on the famous Hitchcock film but on the original novel by Winston Graham who – fun fact – is also the author of the Poldark series. I have never read the novel but the programme (and may I just say here, the ENO produces excellent programmes full of information and interesting texts rather than just ads and images: they are well worth the £5, unlike in so many other venues) offers snippets from the novel, which is written in the first person. From those phrases, a Marnie emerges who is full of undercurrent desire and sensuality, cunning, wit, smarting and passion and an autoerotic sexuality that is not levelled at men but at power, money, daring and winning. That Marnie rarely comes to live on the stage. Muhly links his reading of Marnie to Debussy’s Mélisande, another mysterious troubled female who rejects physical contact and obviously carries some kind of trauma with her. But Mélisande is the portrayal of the eternal child woman, a frail and vulnerable girl who desires only pure platonic love and doesn’t survive maturing into motherhood. Marnie’s fear and hate of men, her disgust at sex and her inability or unwillingness to trust anyone do not stem from immaturity. I think that kind of reading underestimates her, just as the psychoanalyst completely underestimates the extent of Marnie’s trauma: a scene I truly loved. The way this- naturally- male doctor pesters her about her attitude towards childbirth, lazily reducing women’s trouble to only ever womb related issues and his mouth-gaping awe when the true extend of murder and violence emerges.

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Marnie is constantly followed by four “Shadow Marnies”, a visualisation of her past identities or her split personality. Musically this is stunning as they echo Marnie in close harmony creating a haunting sound. Dramaturgically I find it more problematic: can we not accept that one woman can be multifaceted and many faced without being physically split? Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke is an accomplished actress and I would have trusted her to portray all of Marnie’s intricate emotional landscape. I feel equally dubious about the company of shadow men, a group of suited dancers that follow Marnie around. They symbolise the ever present threat that Marnie feels from masculinity, but their constant frantic movement doesn’t really add much. Except in the before mentioned psychotherapy scene where the men seem to be leering at Marnie’s exposed vulnerability, taking in her suffering as some sort of titillating spectacle, lounging on the floor with their legs spread. They finally made sense to me when they stopped moving.

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Completely convincing, on the other hand, is Muhly’s use of the ENO chorus: every time Marnie ventures into any kind of social environment her every action is underscored with a soundscape of gossiping and judging, revealing society’s deeply ingrained misogyny. The whispering hypocritical chorus condemns Marnie for her coldness and frigidity just as they condemned her mother for freely living out her sexuality.

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Very clearly, this opera makes a point about the pressure that women are under and very clearly, in the age of pussy grabbing presidents and the Harvey Weinstein scandal, plus of course the revelations of Hitchcock’s own misconduct and bullying of his leading ladies, this is a hugely relevant and current subject. But here, with this multitude of ambiguous characters, it is difficult to pick sides. There is no easy villain to condemn, no clear hero to root for – on an opera stage where normally story telling is so black and white. I thought of Aribert Reimann’s Medea and how strongly and decisively he portrayed the child murderess as a victim of circumstances. With Marnie, I felt my sympathies shifting from scene to scene, from character to character. I was almost offended at Marnie’s husband Mark being portrayed in his lyrical aria as some kind of romantic hero, furiously scribbling in my notebook how this man’s crimes – attempted rape and blackmailing Marnie into marriage nonetheless– are easily forgiven…. when I stopped my pen and realised how masterfully Muhly uses music to manipulate even the audience. For the genre of opera, this shifting of sympathies and ambiguity of characters is very very interesting but also very difficult. Marnie should be a fascinating person but her emotional detachment makes her at times an non-engaging presence on stage while the dubious character of Mark is troublingly charming, sung by the sharp looking Daniel Okulitch. The countertenor voice of James Laing gives a great sleazy quality to Mark’s rivalling brother Terry. Both Mark’s and Marnie’s mothers are characterised as plain old horrible, manipulative and overbearing the one, unloving and ice cold the other. Women, it seems, just can’t get it right. I would have liked a bit more fleshing out and nuancing for Marnie’s mother who, as we later learn, smothered her new born out-of-wedlock baby. With all the underlying motivations undercutting every action, I don’t accept the murder of the child as an act of pure evil, more likely an act of desperation of a different kind. Visually, the opera is stunning, sleek, stylish, simple, smooth.

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The libretto feels, at times, clunky. One critic called it a “peasant libretto” which is harsh, but, since all real emotion is subconscious or kept at bay, the dialogue that gets expressed is often banal lines such as “that dreadful man from the country club” sung in a stylised operatic manner. Though it never felt comedic, it was often slightly awkward. Musically it was pleasant, at times beautiful, but hardly ever thrilling or memorable. Few scenes are emotional or passionate, which is down to the subject matter. But then even dramatic high points, such as the suicide attempt lack impact, as Marnie’s emotions never seem genuine. Tender scenes such as her grieving for her horse Forio are more touching. Opera needs some real emotions. In the end, when the cause of Marnie’s trauma is revealed and her guilt is lifted, there is a real sense of release, healing and freedom. All in, I found it hugely interesting, thought provoking and ambitious – but maybe too ambiguous for its own good.

Suzanne Frost
November 2017

Photographs by Richard Hubert Smith

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Arabian Nights

One Magical Night

Arabian Nights

by Dominic Cooke

Q2 Players, The Alexandra Room, Kew, 23rd to 25th November

Review by Viola Selby

Once upon a time there was a group of fantastic storytellers, called the Q2 Players, who transported their audience to a magical Arabian land, through the use of their first class acting skills; exotic costumes, excellently designed by Harriet Muir; and atmospheric music, organised by Felicity Morgan. The tale they told, of Arabian Nights, may have been heard many times over the centuries, but never with such magic and passion, that made it feel like this is the first time it has ever been told.

To begin with, the stage is intimate, with the audience members sitting in a sort of semi-circle close to the action. This, met with the use of a minimalist set design, encourages the viewers to really get involved, using their imagination, just how one would when being told a bedtime story. However Q2 have not let this minimalist approach limit their creativity, using other props in creative and occasionally humorous ways. For example, the use of some of the players, dressed in cleverly designed cloaks with gold inner lining, as the opening of the Cave of Wonders was spectacular; whilst the use of a puppet as Sinbad on his adventures was comedic genius and really helped create more variety in the manner each story’s presentation.

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As the stories are told, each of the actors’ talents is shown off, as a wide variety of characters are created through just eleven players.  Each character is brilliantly acted out, depicting their individual wants, desires, fears and personality. An example of this is the manner in which Tony Cotterill goes from being the captain of the forty thieves to old Sinbad, to a man turned into a dog by his wife, to a man so embarrassed by letting off a large fart at his wedding that he runs away to India for the rest of his life.  Cotterill manages to make each of these characters so realistic and relatable, that it feels as if each part had been played by a different actor. Such subtlety is also mastered into the play as Sharazad , played by the talented Jess Warrior, uses her power of story-telling to not only keep herself alive, but to also seduce the king, excellently portrayed by Scott Tilley, into loving her. The effect this is having on the king is shown through the clever way Warrior and Tilley change the way they act towards each other, building up chemistry, and getting closer to one another, both physically and emotionally, as each story is told.

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In addition to this sexual passion and talent, there are also many other scenes that create humour and keep the audience very much entertained. For example, one of my particularly favourite moments was seeing Alison Arnold, as the clever slave girl Marjanah, do a mesmerising belly dance. Although the dance itself was very bewitching, Arnold still kept the feeling of suspense of her character’s deadly plan going as she shook her hips to the music. Whilst the occasional use of audience participation kept all audience members, young and old, fully engaged; clapping along to the music and shouting the magic words at Sidi (played by Cotterill ) to turn his wife into a horse. All this comes together in the enlightening messages that can be taken away from each story and … with the delicious baklavas sold during the interval … truly make this one magical night not to be missed.

Viola Selby
November 2017

Images by RishiRai Photography

Still Life and Red Peppers

A Delight and a Joy

Still Life and Red Peppers

by Noel Coward, Double Bill

Teddington Theatre Club at the Coward Studio, Hampton Hill Theatre until 25th November

Review by Eleanor Lewis

It’s probably compulsory to use the word ‘iconic’ whenever discussing Brief Encounter.  I imagine questions are asked and authorities notified if the word doesn’t feature at least once in any review of it. So I’ll get it out of the way now before moving on: Noel Coward’s Still Life is the play from which the iconic film Brief Encounter grew and it, together with another short, one-act play Red Peppers can be seen at Hampton Hill Theatre this week in Teddington Theatre Club’s production directed by Mandy Stenhouse.

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Fiona Auty’s set for Still Life is perfect. It’s obviously the first thing you see as you enter Hampton Hill’s Coward Studio and it’s delightful: a small, tidy and cosy 1930s station refreshment room, flowers on the tables, small cardboard menus. It makes you long for the days when railway stations actually had these places, staffed with people who poured tea for you and served you pastries which would be accompanied by real cutlery as opposed to wooden sticks. Noel Coward sings gently from the wireless in the background and trains can occasionally be heard arriving and leaving outside the window, Tom Shore’s lighting is soft but businesslike.

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Into this beautifully created little world come the formidable Myrtle, manageress of the refreshment room, directing operations from behind her beautifully arranged counter, and waitress Beryl, together with ticket collector Albert and other characters with small but expertly written roles. These characters set the scene and establish their relationships with each other until the main players arrive on the set, one with a familiar piece of grit in her eye and the other to gallantly help her remove it and thereby fire the spark which begins one of Britain’s best known and most agonising romantic dramas.

Tracy Frankson and Charlie Golding played the famous Laura and Alec, both actors giving accomplished and efficient performances in roles more difficult than they seem. Laura and Alec are neither heroic nor particularly unusual characters, but ordinary – 1930s middle class ordinary, but ordinary nonetheless. They are anyone who has fallen in love with someone they aren’t officially committed to and then battled with their integrity because of it. To bring these characters to life and then to carry an audience with them as they fall in love and consequently struggle with the natural course of their affair is no easy task, particularly as Coward only allows them to interact with each other within the walls of the station tea room.

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Tracy Frankson and Charlie Golding rose to the challenge and took their first performance audience with them all the way. I wondered a little at Charlie Golding’s use of a constantly softened, gentle voice of the type used by some adults when speaking to small children, as it seemed unnecessary, but it didn’t detract from his performance. Where voices are concerned though, the 1930s-40s upper class accent is too easily parodied to go for it wholesale (see Victoria Wood’s Brief Encounter sketch and many others) but possibly a few clipped vowels from time to time between Alec and Laura would have matched the ‘I should say so and no mistake’ accents of the station staff but these are only details against what were two strong performances.

Talking of the ‘lower orders’, Samantha McGill’s Myrtle was marvellous. She was totally engaging, entertaining and real, as was Andy Smith as ticket collector Albert, the beau she dangled at arm’s length … or closer … to the delight of both of them and all of the audience. They were a joy to watch. It’s worth noting too that the level of professionalism on view on the stage at all times – particularly for a first performance – was impressive. Focus naturally switched between the refreshment staff and Alec and Laura but at all times everyone on stage whether speaking or not was occupied appropriately and naturally, a credit to the actors and the director’s attention to detail.

The second play to be seen was Red Peppers. This very short play could be seen in its entirety as a barbed comment on the draining effect of a life touring in vaudeville. Husband and wife double act Lily and George Pepper are, as aptly described in the programme, “on their way down the ladder of success”. The two stagger through a song and dance number Has Anybody Seen Our Ship and then retreat to their cluttered dressing room – another impressive set – where they snipe mercilessly at each other but come together as one to highlight the shortcomings of the musical director and then the theatre manager, nicely played by Andy Hewitt and Edz Barrett. Noisy arguments ensue, disturbing the rest of Miss Mable Grace, a Shakespearean actress somewhat past her best, who floats in and provides an opportunity for new types of sarcasm to be employed by George and Lily who have little time for such types. Helen Smith is appropriately oblivious and other-worldly in this cameo role. The hapless two conclude the play, newly costumed, with a rendition of Men about Town which comes to a disastrous end, sabotaged by the enraged musical director.

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It is a delight to watch and very funny, and tribute must be paid to the skill on show from Lottie Walker and Steve Taylor, two strong actors more than capable of getting everything that is to be got out of Lily and George but whilst doing so they are required to change out of one costume and into another, apply additional make-up, arrange and fit wigs and ultimately consume a plate of steak and chips each. Impressive.

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Still Life and Red Peppers are two highly enjoyable plays, well produced and well directed. The level of consistency of performance across both productions was striking, every performance was rounded, every detail attended to. Highly recommended.

Eleanor Lewis
November 2017

Photography by Joe Stockwell

Hercules

The monster consumes itself

Hercules

by George Frideric Handel, libretto by Thomas Broughton

Richmond Opera at Normansfield Theatre until 19th November

Review by Mark Aspen

Hercules, legendary strongman hero, tackled fearsome lions, hydras, bulls, boars, and monstrous dogs: twelve gruesome creatures, and others beside, hand-to-hand, alone. He succumbed to none, vanquished all these monsters … but then came the green eyed monster!

Sophocles, in one of his best tragedies, Τραχίνιαι (Women of Trachis), tells how Hercules’ death was brought about by the jealousy of his wife, Dejanira. Hercules is returning from Oechalia, where he has been victorious in a war against King Eurytus and his sons, whom he has killed. He is returning home to Trachis in Thessaly, with his army, much booty and many prisoners, including the beautiful Princess Iole, Eurytus’ daughter. Dejanira has been waiting many years for news of Hercules, but now she is not too happy about his principal captive, an aristocratic woman who is young and highly desirable. Seeds of marital discord soon germinate in Dejanira’s heart, with disastrous consequences.

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Handel’s Hercules, which premiered in January 1745, had a bumpy ride in its early days. The part of Lichas, the herald, originally a minor tenor role, was rewritten for actress Susannah Cibber, one London’s most popular stage personalities of the time. Unfortunately, she was taken ill and the part was read in. The piece flopped and Handel offered his Subscribers (the production’s “angels”) their money back, but they stuck with him and the houses picked up later in the season. Nevertheless, Handel’s confidence in the work was shaken, and he continued to write and rewrite that piece for years.

Hence, Hercules has always had the feel of a work in progress, and Richmond Opera in its current production of Hercules continues this notion by presenting an abridged version and splitting some of the original roles between other characters, albeit characters with a mythological pedigree. Moreover, director Lucy Green has moved the action to Britain, and in the mid-fifteenth century, although the reason for this is not obvious. However, it does give a wonderful opportunity for scene designer Lynn Keay to blend her set beautifully with the Victorian medievalism of the Normansfield Theatre and the pre-Raphaelite feel of its paintings. It furthermore gives a complementary opportunity for costume designer Kate Cleeland to regal us some luxurious medieval garments, including featuring of the hennin, the tall steeple hat favoured by ladies at the start of the Wars of the Roses, the archetypical fairy princess hat.

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The fairy princess of this story is Iole, who is finely acted by soprano Philippa Dodd, whose vocal precision lightly colours the baroque figuring. From the initial lament for her lost freedom, and for her slaughtered family, to being able to feel sympathy and love for her captors, Iole has a huge emotional journey to make. At first she contrasts, “Daughter of gods, bright liberty! … thou, alas, hast winged thy flight … removed for ever from my sight” with “Captivity, like the destroyer death, throws all distinctions down”. Whereas, later she recognises the effect of jealousy in her nemesis Dejanira, “Ah, think what ills the jealous prove. Adieu to peace, adieu to love”. In due course, she can feel deep sympathy with Dejanira, “My breast with tender pity swells at sight of human woe …”. Philippa Dodd achieves this task consummately.

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Emilie Taride brings great mezzo fire to the role of Dejanira, giving her passions full rein. When jealousy takes hold, she knows how to spit the venom, and has a good turn of sarcasm for her hero husband, “Oh, I grieve to see the victor to the vanquished yield …. Your fame eclips’d, and all your laurels blasted!”. It may be true to the mezzo cliché of bitches, witches and britches but Handel is not very kind to poor Dejanira. Perhaps Taride could have turned down the heat, although not for the deranged full-blast arias such as “Where shall I fly”. Sophocles, in contrast to Handel, shows Dejanira as the victim of her own jealousy, not its mistress.

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What is the consequence of Dejanira’s jealousy? While Hercules is away overseeing preparations for the rites to celebrate his victory, Dejanira remembers she has stored a “garment, dipped in Nessus’ blood”, which will “revive the expiring flame of love” in Hercules. She sends Lichas to the temple with it for Hercules to wear at the ceremony. Now, Nessus was a centaur, who had offered to ferry Dejanira across the River Evenus. In mid-crossing, Nessus attempted to rape her and Hercules shot him dead with an arrow steeped in the blood of the Hydra. The dying centaur claimed to Dejanira that a garment soaked in his blood could be used as an aphrodisiac specific to Hercules, and that he would never look at another woman again.

However, when Hercules dons the garment, the Hydra’s blood bursts into flames, burning the skin from his body, whilst irretrievably sticking the deadly garment to him. Choreographer Harita Stavrou has created an atmospheric ballet sequence for this gruesome immolation of Hercules with five young dancers from the Richmond Academy of Dance, a ring of silk flames surrounding Hercules as he dies. Hercules, played with rich bass resonance by Tony Moss, calls out in agony “I burn, I burn. Tormenting fire consumes me. Oh, I die. Some ease, ye pitying powers!”. But no help comes, although he calls, “Neptune, kindly pour Ocean’s collected flood into my breast and cool my boiling blood!”.

 

 

Handel referred to his Hercules as a Musical Drama, and dramatic it certainly is, to distinguish it in essence from his non-staged oratorios. It is much more in the style of the Italian operas of his time. Not only is da capo aria form prominent, but the chorus plays an important role. Here the link with the source material from Sophocles is evident, as the chorus has the same function of the chorus in Greek tragedy, commenting on the action as well as being part of the narrative itself.

Richmond Opera’s chorus greatly fleshes out the piece. It’s collective outburst “Jealousy! Infernal pest, tyrant of the human breast! How from slightest causes bred dost thou lift thy hated head!” forms a powerful climax to the first half of the opera, a massed fugato highlight. Its lament following the death of Hercules is striking: “Tyrants now no more shall dread on necks of vanquished slaves to tread … Fear of punishment is o’er. The world’s avenger is no more!”

Notwithstanding the strong presence of the chorus, the stage often feels congested and over-used. There are often occasions when groups of actors are there for no particular reason and sometimes pull the focus. Equally the temptation to over-use the renowned Normansfield scenery and fly in its magnificent painted backdrops overwhelms. (Incidentally the use of free-standing scenery blocks to supplement the Victorian flats is a very clever idea.)
We know that opera thrives on spectacle but sometimes less can be more.

The plot of Hercules is not all negative however. There is the underlying element of the transmutation of Iole’s despair, and her hated of her captors, into a growing love for Hyllus, Hercules’ son. Tenor Andrew Evans delivers an imposing vocal interpretation of the part, secure through the full range of his register, but could allow himself to be more impassioned in his physical interpretation of the role, particularly as Hyllus woos the lovely Iole, when, “Gods have left their heaven above to taste the sweeter heaven of love”.

Some of the Hyllus’ words are given in this production to Iolaus, in mythology Hyllus’ cousin. Luke Reader gives the role sharpened vitality, with vocal accuracy and a pleasing tone, particularly at the lower end of the register. Lichas, the herald, the part Handel originally intended for contralto Susannah Cibber, was later transposed for counter-tenor and Mark Fletcher ably demonstrates his remarkable vocal abilities in this role.

Handel shows his mastery of inventive contrapuntal and temporal variation. Dramatically, the music follows the moods of the plot and underlines the characterisation of the protagonists. Conductor Lindsay Bramley, Richmond Opera’s Music Director, runs expertly with all these nuances, pacing at the appropriate tempo, and pushing the anxious energy of the music. She gets the most from her fifteen piece orchestra under the experienced leadership of Jocelyn Slocombe. Whist mainly modern instruments, it has an authentic baroque feel, helped not only by Michael Keen’s harpsichord, but by the full expression of the foregrounding of individual instruments elicited in Handel’s narrative score.

Hercules is a work full of ironies. The ironies of Nessus’ words, of the guilt of the innocent, of love arising from hatred, set the foil for its greatest irony, that Dejanira’s love for her husband bring about his destruction. Keep the green eyed monster in its lair, for if love conquers all, it may commit suicide.

Mark Aspen
November 2017

 

Big the Musical

Check In With Your Inner ‘Big’ Kid

Big the Musical

by David Shire and Richard Maltby Jnr

YAT at Hampton Hill Theatre until 18th November

Review by Georgia Renwick

However many years pass by, we never entirely forget what it is to be young. Big the Musical, which premiered in 1996 and which followed the 1988 film, is a nostalgic night out which will have you asking, when did you last check in with your inner ‘Big’ kid?
Josh is two weeks from thirteen, a normal kid decked out in 80’s backwards cap and jacket with a family, his dorky best friend Billy and a crush who doesn’t know he exists. I can relate – at thirteen, I wouldn’t leave the house without my ‘trademark’ over-knee stripy socks and though I went on my first date, we ate McDonalds and saw School of Rock, this was hardly the pinnacle of romance and I felt every bit as awkward.

 
What these were however, were formative experiences. But formative experiences are not what Josh is looking for, and weeks from his thirteenth birthday, rejected and humiliated by his crush at a carnival, Josh loses patience and wishes on a spooky old carnival machine to be “big”. It isn’t any old carnival machine, and the next morning he wakes up in pyjamas many, many sizes too small – his wish has been granted. Left to navigate the grown-up world alone while Billy searches for the solution, will Josh learn to love the Big world of jobs and cars and money, or will the love of his best friend and family win-out over the possibility of unlimited toys and blossoming romance?

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The ever-energetic YAT cast have an absolute ball with the show in the capable hands of director Sophie Hardie, who though new to YAT, has previously directed with TTC.

Seeing the adult parts played by actors who are still only young people themselves adds another whole generational dimension to what we are watching. Every one of them will be too young to have seen the 1980s first hand, so their families will be watching them re-live a generation they weren’t even alive to see … not that this matters of course, who doesn’t love legwarmers, mom-jeans, top-knots and neon?
Attention has been paid to lovingly recreating the era, from the costumes, to the posters on the boys’ walls to Pac-Man playing on a projection as the audience are seated. The set is painted like a 1980s music video in shades of neon pink and green; the full live band is enhanced with 80s-wave synthesises; and the stage is kitted out with flashing lights of green, purple and yellow and a projection centre stage which transports us to 80s America. The sound, lighting and visuals make a big impact on the senses.

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Each of the young performers puts their heart and soul into their parts, not a line feels wasted, as we have come to expect from YAT’s talented ensemble.
Meaghan Baxter packs a punch giving big voice and a sparky attitude to young Josh, whilst Matt Nicholas pulls out all the stops in his energetic and adorably adolescent rendition of ‘Big’ Josh Baskin. His child-like innocence reads as genuine, which is essential to the likability of this slightly odd protagonist, whilst his socially awkward mannerisms such as pulling at the hem of his suit and running his hands over his hair are so well observed it is at times hard to watch without cringing knowingly on his behalf. Ah, to be young!

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Nicholas shares quieter moments with Amy Hope as Josh’s colleague Susan Laurence, who he becomes close to. Hope’s voice is of a truly professional grade, and she tackles some challenging solos, particularly her opener Here We Go Again, with skill and bags of personality.
Whilst Hope’s nostalgic musings are touching, Katie Crawford’s solos as Josh’s mother Mrs Baskin are heart-wrenching. She summons tear-jerking real emotion to the stage as she sings Stop, Time to Josh’s uneaten birthday cake. I challenge any parent – or even child – not to be moved.
George Barden also stands out as an endearingly dorky Billy with a big heart and big voice, whilst Jojo Leppink brings sass and superb comic timing to everything she does as assistant Miss Watson, from holding a coffee pot to the less-than-exciting prospect of Billy’s algebra homework.
Overall, the choreography from Hardie is snappy, but avoids the trappings of being too polished: these are talented young people with the freedom to express their individual rhythms and not moving like oiled machinery. At times the stage often feels too small for the scale and ambition of some of the dance pieces! A few transitions do also feel a little awkwardly forced in places, as the show shifts from dialogue into dance and back again, but these do not interfere too much with the overall pace of the piece.
For a family-friendly show, it treads pretty close to the edge of what Josh can do as a grown-up… but on the whole, it is kept PG-13 friendly. The more grown-up jokes that do land seem to have gone over any younger heads.
In his few weeks Josh spends as a grown-up, he comes to the realisation that grown-ups, even ones that make toys for a living, are boring. They’ve forgotten how to dance, how to play games and lost sight of what makes ‘fun’, fun! In the context of the musical it only takes a little dancing and some 80s tunes to remind them to reconnect, perhaps that really is all we need?
“Fun isn’t programmed, it isn’t planned”, the cast sing, but though this is programmed and very well planned it is fun, so channel your inner ’Big’ kid, or bring your smaller ones, for a Big, fun evening out.

Georgia Renwick
November 2017

Photography by Sarah J Carter

 

Picnic at Hanging Rock

A Thrill and a Chill

Picnic at Hanging Rock

by Tom Wright, adapted from a novel by Joan Lindsay

Wild Duck Theatre at OSO Arts Centre, Barnes until 18th November

Review by Georgia Renwick

On a cold, foggy, November night, you might think a trip to sunny Australia, via the OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, would be the perfect antidote, but if you take a trip to Picnic at Hanging Rock this week, expect a thrill – and a chill.

Adapted from the bestselling 1967 novel and critically acclaimed 1975 film which followed, Picnic at Hanging Rock tells the tale of the disappearance of several schoolgirls and their teacher during a picnic out in the bush at the turn of the 20th century. In their virginal white corsets and silk petticoats, three layers thick, curiosity draws them across the threshold of their strict boarding school upbringing to venture out into the wilderness. What unfolds will never be fully uncovered, but the girls, and the community, will never be the same again.

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But this is no ordinary ‘who-dunnit’ turn-of-the-century tale of mystery. The girls do not appear to disappear into the hands of a stranger, but into the arms of Australia itself, a “sea of flame”, an ancient land where lava bubbles under the surface of their white-gloved world of “refinement”. Do the girls wonder willingly into the wilderness, or are they taken back by its raw and unwieldy power?

The 80-minute play, which runs all the way through without a break, is held in masterful suspense by excellent acting and a high level of sound and lighting design.

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Tom Wright’s adaptation, which having premiered in Australia, made its UK debut at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh in January this year, is told partially in the third person. This can be a little confusing at times, but like a ghost story told round a fire, it draws you in. Another feature of this adaptation, which was originally written for five actresses but is taken on by Wild Duck theatre’s very accomplished cast of eight, is that each of the girls and women must multi-role. This really allows them to show their acting strengths and work together as a seamless ensemble.

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Francesca Stone has the challenge of playing a man obsessed by the girl she was playing a scene earlier whilst Fiona Lawrie must play the Police Inspector searching for her former teacher self. I found the most effective of the pairings to be Georganna Simpson’s transition from intellectual schoolgirl to cussing horse-boy (“bloody pomegranates!”), complete with (temporary) tattoos. She brought an endearing and earnest spirit to their distinctly contrasting characters, and two distinct and well executed accents to boot. Indeed, voice work from the entire cast seemed to be of a professional standard all-round.

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Susan Conte directs with the finesse of a seasoned horror fan, never showing the audience that which can be more horrifyingly heard through a long, echoing offstage scream. Before the actors have even taken to the stage the air hums with the sound of crickets and rattlesnakes and you can almost feel the prickling heat, along with the prickling of uneasiness. The instrumentation of composer Joe Evans is intertwined with the natural sounds, creating a score that heightens the tension as well as embodying the overarching theme of the play, the dichotomy of the wild and the civilised.

The set is kept simple, a few artfully decorated boxes become a log and the jagged, jutting out rocks of the Hanging Rock. The real Hanging Rock appears as a projection, an appropriate and ominous visual cue for those of us who have not seen the real thing. The lighting design from Martin Walton sees the stage bathed in red and blues, from fierce Australian sun to cool, mysterious night. The classic torch-under-the-face trick used by Stone as Michael, as he searches the rock in the dark may seem a little amateur-horror, but it is still disconcertingly effective. What we cannot see, once again, is more terrifying than what is there.

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We as an English audience are placed in an interesting position in watching this play, which has not been altered since it played to an Australian one. We are made more conscious in the British character of Mrs Appleyard, whose stiff upper lip and stern brow are portrayed with malice by Nicole Doble, of our status as the colonists, as the outside, the other. Our English person’s ‘lack of understanding’, is voiced in her refusal to let any natural influence tamper with her pure, cultivated girls. To her, the rock is not a wonderous thing to be revered but, “a carbuncle in this anti-Eden”. Her teaching and her attitudes in her school in no way prepare her girls for the world of Australia, but for the colonised society in which she and their families imagine they will live.

“What is the purpose of spelling and algebra in Australia?” Irma cries at her headmistress, in a hot fit of revolt. Considering what chillingly becomes of her fellow students, she has a point.

Georgia Renwick
November 2017

Photography by Marc Pearce

 

Death Trap

Slick and Classy Classic

Death Trap

by Ira Levin

Salisbury Playhouse and TBO Productions at Richmond Theatre until 18th November

Review by Eleanor Marsh

Stephen King said of Ira Levin, “ [He is] . . .  the Swiss watchmaker of suspense novels, he makes what the rest of us do look like cheap watchmakers in drugstores”.  If he should be in the audience at Richmond Theatre this week during the run of Deathtrap, I don’t doubt he would say the same of Levin’s playwriting skills.  The play starts as it means to go on – the first night audience jumped out of their seats before the curtain went up and Adam Penford’s production never lets the level of suspense or shock value drop throughout the entire play.  This production, originating at the Salisbury Playhouse, hits its target perfectly. An ideal, highly accessible vehicle to tour the provinces, Deathtrap is just three months short of the 40th anniversary of its opening and this outing has excellent production values and performances throughout.

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A vast amount of attention to detail has been paid to the set (apart from the disappointing lack of visible greenery in the “garden”) and costume design, which are complemented by effective lighting and sound, transforming the stage instantly from cosy living room to house of horrors. To provide too much detail around either plot or set would serve only to spoil the fun for those of you yet to see the play. Aficionados will find here all they would expect in terms of suspense and surprise in spades.  It will not disappoint.  I particularly liked the device of using snippets of classic movie suspense thrillers to mask scene changes and at the same time illustrate the various forms of murder depicted in Bruhl and Anderson’s plays.

Star casting in a production such as this always makes me nervous.  I would rather see a good actor than a famous one, but in this case it works extremely well.  Both Paul Bradley and Jessie Wallace are versatile actors and work well together as husband and wife, Sydney and Myra Bruhl.  Perhaps Mr Bradley could play up the comedy a little less at the beginning of the play- the text does the job for itself and does not need to be laboured.  But this is a small gripe: these are both strong performances that are complemented well by Sam Phillips’ portrayal of up and coming young author Clifford Anderson.  Completing the five cast members crucial to the plot are Julien Ball as Porter Milgrim and Beverley Klein as the “comedy psychic” Helga ten Dorp.  I would have preferred Ms Klein’s level of OTT mania to have remained where it was on her first entrance and not to have spiralled almost out of control towards the end of the play, but she knows her audience and her performance was well received at Richmond.

The play itself has stood the test of time and does not feel at all dated. It does however have a very strange (and unnecessary) final scene.  In fact I felt so strongly that this scene was out of place that I feared it might have been added to assist the provincial audience; this would have been patronising in the extreme and after some last minute research I’m very pleased to report that Salisbury Playhouse are exonerated and the fault lies, sadly with the author.  This did not spoil an otherwise slick and classy production of a classic thriller, which I heartily recommend.

Levin himself said his preferred medium to write for was the stage as it enabled him to see his audience’s reaction. He would have been very happy to have been at Richmond Theatre this week, I am sure.

Eleanor Marsh
November 2017